House Speaker Michael Madigan likes to send “messages.” He doesn’t often explain what those messages are, but last week’s surprising defeat of a bill to give the Chicago Public Schools a 40-day extension on its $634 million pension payment due June 30th was most surely a message to somebody.
Despite his spokesman saying the day before that Madigan was “prepared to be supportive,” it’s clear that Madigan did not work to pass the bill, which was being pushed by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. His staff did not urge members to vote for it before or during the roll call.
Madigan himself said he did not ask the Republicans for a specific number of votes for a structured roll call, which is another indication that he wasn’t ready to move the ball forward.
Madigan’s Deputy Majority Leader Lou Lang presided over the proceeding. A newspaper reported that Lang voted “No” in order to file a motion to reconsider the vote that would keep it alive. OK, but if you watch the roll call, Lang pushed his red button right after the voting was opened, which probably sent a strong signal to the rank and file.
House Democrats don’t have to be told what to do at moments like these. As we’ve seen time and again, when Madigan doesn’t actively push a bill his members automatically assume that things aren’t soup yet and they can vote however they want.
So, when Gov. Rauner’s office sent out a statement saying: “The only reason the Speaker’s Chicago caucus would vote against the Mayor’s bill is because Madigan wanted to kill it,” Madigan could deny to reporters with a straight face that he said that to anybody.
But whether the governor’s office is right or if Madigan simply stepped aside and allowed the bill to go down on its own, the end result is still the same. The bill failed.
“This complicates things,” cryptically said a high level Rauner administration official. Yep. That’s how he said it. He refused to elaborate further.
Despite the dark humor, the Rauner folks were in no mood for the usual Springfield parlor game of guessing what Madigan was actually trying to say without actually saying it. They thought they had a deal, they trusted Madigan to hold up his end, and instead the bill went down in flames. Their anger was palpable.
They also didn’t appear to have the patience to wait until the House returned to Springfield for another crack at the legislation (and, because of the looming deadline, when the bill’s passage seems much more likely).
OK, back to the “messages” parlor game. What the heck was Madigan up to?
Most likely, he was sending a message to Mayor Emanuel that if he wanted to cut deals with Gov. Rauner and Senate President John Cullerton then he’ d have to work his caucus to find the votes – or come to him and ask that he do it. And he also likely wants Gov. Rauner to “own” this steaming pile of kick the can.
Insiders have long said that Madigan has believed from the beginning that those three men would attempt to triangulate him. Mayor Emanuel lives in Senate President Cullerton’s district and he has a long-standing professional, political and personal friendship with Gov. Rauner. It’s always been the obvious play: Line up the mayor, the governor, the Senate Democrats and the two House GOP caucuses against the House Speaker.
But it’s also a dangerous game because trapping that old bull in a corner will have serious long-term consequences, which is why Senate President Cullerton has gone far out of his way to not make it appear that this was happening.
The Rauner administration, however, sent a clear signal before the House vote that, as far as they were concerned, the triangulation play had begun.
A letter to Rep. John Bradley from the governor’s chief legislative liaison about a Bradley committee request for some internal payroll information: “While we understand your desire to hold sham hearings to distract the taxpayers from your vote for an unbalanced budget and your desire to raise taxes without reform, we will continue to negotiate in good faith with Senate Democrats, Mayor Emanuel and Republican leaders toward a comprehensive bipartisan agreement to turn around Illinois.”
You can’t get much more clear than that.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.